The Transformation of Distance Education to Distributed Learning
The development of high performance computing and communications is creating new media, such as the World Wide Web and virtual realities. In turn, these new media enable new types of messages and experiences; for example, interpersonal interactions in immersive, synthetic environments lead to the formation of virtual communities. The innovative kinds of pedagogy empowered by these emerging media, messages, and experiences make possible a transformation of conventional distance education--which replicates tàraditional classroom teaching across barriers of distance and time--into an alternative instructional paradigm: distributed learning.
Implications of New Media for Distance Education
What does the evolution of new media mean for distance educators? A medium is in part a channel for conveying content; new media like the Internet mean that we can readily reach wider, more diverse audiences. Just as important, however, is that a medium is a representational container enabling new types of messages (e.g., sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words). Since the process of thinking is based on representations such as language and imagery, the process of learning is strongly shaped by the types of instructional messages we can exchange with students. Emerging representational containers, such as hypermedia, enable a broader, more powerful repertoire of pedagogical strategies.
The global marketplace and the communications and entertainment industries are driving the rapid evolution of high performance computing and communications. Regional, national, and global "information infrastructures" are developing that enhance our abilities to sense and act and learn across barriers of distance and time. How information is created, delivered, and used in business, government and society is swiftly changing. To successfully prepare students as workers and citizens, educators must incorporate into the curriculum experiences with creating and utilizing new forms of expression, such as multimedia. Information infrastructures offer channels for delivering such technology-intensive learning experiences just-in-time, anyplace, and on-demand (Dede, 1994).
The "information superhighway" metaphor now widely used to convey the implications of high performance computing and communications is inadequate. Such an analogy is the equivalent of someone in 1895 declaring that the airplane will be the canal system of the 20th century. Backward looking metaphors focus on what we can automate--how we can use new channels to send conventional forms of content more efficiently--but miss the true innovation: redefining how we communicate and educate by using new types of messages and experiences to be more effective. Since emerging forms of representation such as hypermedia and virtual reality are in their early stages of development, we are just beginning to understand how they shape not only their messages, but also their users.
Many people are still reeling from the first impact of high performance computing and communications: shifting from the challenge of not getting enough information to the challenge of surviving too much information. The core skill for today's workplace is not foraging for data, but filtering a plethora of incoming information. The emerging literacy we all must master requires diving into a sea of information, immersing ourselves in data to harvest patterns of knowledge just as fish extract oxygen from water via their gills. As educators, understanding how to structure learning experiences to make such immersion possible is the core of the new rhetoric. Expanding traditional definitions of liter acy and rhetoric into immersion-centered experiences of interacting with information is crucial to preparing students for full participation in 21st century society (Dede, 1992).
Conventional distance education is similar to traditional classroom instruction, save that it uses technology-based delivery systems. In contrast, emerging forms of distributed learning are reconceptualizing education's mission, clients, process, and content; this new instructional paradigm is based both on shifts in what learners need to be prepared for the future and on new capabilities in the pedagogical repertoire of teachers. Four new forms of expression are shaping the emergence of distributed learning as a new pedagogical model:
We are just beginning to understand how these representational containers can reshape the content, process, and delivery of conventional distance education. Information infrastructures are the lever for this evolution, just as the steam engine was the driver for the industrial revolution.
"Knowledge webs" enable distributed access to experts, archival resources, authentic environments, and shared investigations. We are accustomed to asking a well-informed person in our immediate vicinity for guidance, to consulting printed information or watching a news program, to visiting exhibits (such as a zoo) to learn about different types of environments, and to conducting informal experiments to understand how reality works. Often, these information gathering and creation activities are constrained by barriers of distance, restricted access, scheduling difficulties, and the limits of one's personal expertise in investigation.
Via information infrastructures, educators and students can join distributed conferences that provide an instant network of contacts with useful skills, a personal brain trust with just-in-time answers to immediate questions. In time, these informal sources of expertise will utilize embedded "groupware" tools to enhance collaboration. On the Internet, on-line archival resources are increasingly linked into the World Wide Web, accessible through "webcrawlers" such as Mosaic and Netscape. Eventually, artificial intelligence-based guides will facilitate navigating through huge amounts of stored information.
Virtual exhibits that duplicate real-world settings (e.g., museums) are emerging; these environments make possible a wide variety of experiences without the necessity of travel or scheduling. Distributed science projects enable conducting shared experiments dispersed across time and space, each team member learning more than would be possible in isolation about the phenomenon being studied and about scientific investigation. Combined, all these capabilities to enhance information gathering and creation form knowledge webs.
However, access to data does not automatically expand students' knowledge; the availability of information does not intrinsically create an internal framework of ideas that learners can use to interpret reality. While presentational approaches transmit material rapidly from source to student, often this content evaporates quickly from learners' minds. To be motivated to master concepts and skills, students need to see the connection of what they are learning to the rest of their lives and to the mental models they already use. Even when learners are drilled in a topic until facts are indefinitely retained--we all know that the sum of a triangle's internal angles is 180 degrees--this knowledge is often "inert"; most people don't know how to apply the abstract principles they memorized in school to solving real-world problems. To move students beyond assimilating inert f acts into generating better mental models, teachers must structure learning experiences that highlight how new ideas can provide insights in intriguing, challenging situations.
The curriculum is already overcrowded with low-level information; teachers frantically race through required material, helping students memorize factual data to be regurgitated on mandated, standardized tests. Using information infrastructures as a fire hose to spray yet more information into educational settings would make this situation even worse. Without skilled facilitation, many learners who access current knowledge webs will flounder in a morass of unstructured data (Dede & Palumbo, 1990).
A vital, emerging form of literacy for educators to communicate is how to transform archival information into personal knowledge. However, moving students from access through assimilation to appropriation requires educational experiences that empower knowledge construction by unsophisticated learners, helping them make sense of massive, incomplete, and inconsistent information sources. Weaving learner-centered, constructivist usage of linked, on-line materials into the curriculum and culture of traditional educational institutions is a next stage of evolution for conventional distance education.
Virtual communities that provide support from people who share common joys and trials are a second capability for enhancing distributed learning. We are accustomed to face-to-face interaction as a means of getting to know people, sharing ideas and experiences, enjoying others' humor and fellowship, and finding solace. In a different manner, distributed learning via information infrastructures can satisfy these needs at any time, any place. Some people (shy, reflective, comfortable with emotional distance) even find asynchronous, low bandwidth communication more "authentic" than face-to-face verbal exchange. They can take time before replying to compose a more elegant message, as well as to refine the emotional nuances they wish to convey. This alternative conception of authenticity may reflect a different dimension to learning styles than the visual, auditory, symbolic, and kinesthetic differentiations now used.
To dramatically improve learning outcomes by evolving to new pedagogical strategies, distance educators need the virtual communities information infrastructures make possible. Learning is social as well as intellectual. Individual, isolated attempts to make sense of complex data can easily fail unless the learner is encouraged by some larger group that is constructing shared knowledge. In addition, institutional evolution is a communal enterprise; educational innovators need emotional and intellectual support from others who have similar challenges in their lives.
Moreover, formal education comprises only 19% of how students spend their time. No matter how well schooling is done, achieving major gains in learning requires that the other 81% of pupils' lives be educationally fulfilling as well. This necessitates close cooperationn and shared responsibility for distributed learning among society's educational agents (families, social service agencies, workplaces, mass media, schools, higher education), which virtual communities can enhance. For example, involving families more deeply in their children's education may be the single most powerful lever for improved learning outcomes. Virtual parent-teacher conferences and less formal social interchanges make such involvement more likely for parents who will never come to a PTA meeting or a school-based event. In many regions across the U.S., community networks are emerging that, among other missions, enhance education by enabling distributed discourse among all the stakeholders in quality schooling.
Another illustration of a distributed learning use for virtual communities is peer tutoring. This instructional approach aids all students involved both intellectually and emotionally, but is difficult to implement in traditional classroom settings. Outside of school, virtual interactions enhanced by groupware tools readily enable such student-student relationships, as well as preparing their participants for later use of distributed problem solving techniques in adult workplace settings. Telementoring and teleapprenticeships between students and workplace experts are similar examples of applying virtual community capabilities to distributed learning.
Creating a sense of communion among a distributed group linked by low to moderate bandwidth networking is a complex challenge. Some people favor technology-mediated communication as their most authentic way of sharing ideas and enjoying fellowship. Most people prefer face-to-face interaction, but find the convenience of just-in-time, anyplace access to others often outweighs the disadvantages of distributed sharing of ideas, experiences, and support. Groupware tools, a capable moderator, and shared interactivity and control are important for sustaining the vitality of virtual communities, as is occasional direct contact among participants.
To succeed, distributed learning must balance virtual and direct interaction in sustaining communion among people. A relationship based only on telephone conversation lacks the vibrancy that face-to-face interchange provides. Similarly, while digital video will broaden the bandwidth of virtual interactions on information infrastructures, teleconferencing will never completely substitute for direct personal contact. We can expect a variety of social inventions to emerge that provide the best of both worlds; for example, national professional conferences may sponsor pre- and post-conference virtual communities that enable participants to make the most of the limited face-to-face time they have. Through their expertise in encouraging interactivity across disparate geographic locations, distance educators have important insights to contribute in the evolution of virtual communities.
Shared Synthetic Environments that Complement Real World Experiences
Another emerging capability for enhancing distributed learning is shared synthetic environments that extend our experiences beyond what we can encounter in the real world. Information infrastructures are not only channels for transmitting content, but also communal virtual worlds that students can enter and explore. Just as single-user simulations allow an individual to interact with a model of reality (e.g., flying a virtual airplane), distributed simulations enable many people at different locations to inhabit and shape a common synthetic environment. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense uses distributed simulation technology to create virtual battlefields on which learners at remote sites develop collective military skills. The appearance and capabilities of graphically represented military equipment alter second-by-second as the virtual battle evolves ("dial-a-war").
Distributed simulation is a representational container that can empower abroad range of educational uses (e.g., virtual factories, hospitals, cities). The vignette below d epicts a hypothetical future application that promotes distributed learning outside the classroom through "edutainment."
Even without the added enhancement of visual imagery, the rise on the Internet of text-based shared synthetic environments (e.g., MUDs, MUSEs, MOOs) illustrates people's fascination with participatory virtual worlds. The continual evolution of distributed simulations based on participants' collaborative interactions keeps these shared virtual environments from becoming boring and stale. In contrast to standard adventure games, in which you wander through someone else's fantasy, the ability to personalize an environment and receive recognition from others for adding to the shared context is attractive to many people. Part of why we read fiction or watch dramatic productions is to escape the ordinary in a manner that increases our insights or refreshes us to plunge back into real world challenges. Shared virtual experiences on the NII can complement books, plays, television, movies, and concerts in their ability to take us beyond the daily grind--the challenge is to move past escapism into metaphorical comprehension and catharthis (Dede, in press).
Sensory Immersion to Grasp Reality Through Illusion
In addition to distributed simulation, advances in high performance computing and communications also are enabling learners' sensory immersion in "artificial realities." Via an immersion interface based on computerized clothing and ahead-mounted display, the participant feels "inside" an artificial reality rather than viewing a synthetic environment through a computer monitor's screen; virtual reality is analogous to diving rather than looking into an aquarium window. Using sensory immersion to present abstract, symbolic data intangible form is a powerful means of attaining insights into real world phenomena (Dede, 1993b).
For example, "visualization" is an emerging type of rhetoric that enhances learning by using the human visual system to find patterns in large amounts of information. People have very powerful pattern recognition capabilities for images; much of our brain is "wetware" dedicated to this purpose. As a result, when tabular data of numerical variables such as temperature, pressure, and velocity are transfigured into graphical objects whose shifts in shape, texture, size, color, and motion convey the changing values of each variable, increased insights are often attained. For example, graphical data visualizations that model thunderstorm-related phenomena (e.g., downbursts, airflows, cloud movements) are valuable in helping meteorologists and students understand the dynamics of these weather systems.
As information infrastructures increasingly enable people to access large databases across distance, visualization tools can expand human perceptions so that we recognize underlying relationships that would otherwise be swamped in a sea of numbers. One good way to enhance creativity is to make the familiar strange and the strange, familiar; adding sonification and even tactile sensations to visual imagery can make abstract things tangible and vice versa. For example, expanding human perceptions (e.g. allowing a medical student--like Superman--to see the human body through X-ray vision) is a powerful method for deepening learners' motivation and their intuitions about physical phenomena. My current research centers on assessing the potential value of sensory immersion and synthetic environments for learning material as disparate as electromagnetic fields and intercultural sensitivities (Salzman, Dede, &Loftin, in press).
The vignette below illustrates how sensory immersion might someday be combined with knowledge webs, virtual collaboration, and synthetic environments to enable powerful forms of distributed learning.
Assessing The Impact of Distributed Learning on Conventional Schooling
The distributed learning vignettes depicted above may seem financially implausible; where will schools, colleges and universities find the resource s to implement these alternative pedagogical models? An analogy can be drawn to the early-1980s competition among cable TV vendors to receive exclusive franchises from communities. Those educators smart enough to participate in that bargaining process received substantial resources--buildings wired for free, dedicated channels, sophisticated production equipment--because the vendors knew public service applications would help determine who won. In the same manner, during today's much larger war in the information services industry, distance educators that have innovative alternatives to "talking heads" instruction can find vendors happy to share the costs in exchange for help with the regulators, legislators, and judges who are determining which coalitions will manage the nation's information infrastructures.
However, as with business, the evolution of technology creates new markets and expanded competitors for schools and colleges. As one illustration, prestigious universities s may develop nationwide offerings of standard courses (e.g. PSYC101) taught by telegenic, internationally recognized authorities. In such a strategy, high production-value presentations would be coupled with frequent, interactive teleconferences; mentoring via electronic mail; and occasional face-to-face meetings of locally enrolled students led by a practitioner. This approach would not intrigue learners interested in a residential college experience, but could be very attractive to students at commuter campuses. With sufficient economies of scale, this delivery method would have lower costs than our present system of similar standard courses duplicated at every institution. While many faculty would disparage this type of instruction, state legislatures could easily see such a model as an attractive way to cut their expenditures for higher education--a method applicable to every course for which a substantial textbook market exists.
In such an evolution of distance education, colleges and universities would be reshaped as profoundly as American business has been altered by technologies enabling the global marketplace. Given their responsibilities for socialization and custodial protection, public schools would be less affected by the erosion of geographic monopolies through distributed learning technologies. However, the home schooling and educational voucher movements see information infrastructures as an attractive alternative means of instructional delivery. If distributed learning is not incorporated into public schools' classrooms, teachers may find a decade from now that they have a smaller fraction of students enrolled and fewer taxpayers willing to provide funding.
Transforming Distance Education to Distributed Learning
Today, distance education is primarily used in selective situations to overcome problems of scale (not enough students in a single location) and rarity (a specialized subject not locally available). Such instruction is often seen as "half a loaf" pedagogy; better than nothing, but not as good as face-to-face teaching. However, the global marketplace and emerging information infrastructures are changing this situation. Educators must help all students become adept at distanced interaction, for skills of information gathering from remote sources and of collaboration with dispersed team members are as central to the future American workplace as learning to perform structured tasks quickly was to the industrial revolution. Also, by increasing the diversity of human resources available to students, distributed learning can enhance equity-- as well as pluralism to prepare for competition in the world marketplace. Virtual classrooms have a wider spectrum of peers with whom learners can collaborate than any local region can offer and a broader range of teachers and mentors than any single educational institution can afford.
In a few years, high performance computing and communications will make knowledge utilities, virtual communities, shared synthetic environments, and sensory immersion as routine a par t of everyday existence as the telephone, television, radio, and newspaper are today. Distributed learning experiences will be seen as vital for all learners even when the same content could be taught face-to-face, and all teaching will have some attributes of "distance education" (Dede, 1993a). Keeping a balance between virtual interaction and direct interchange will be important, however. Technology-mediated communication and experience supplement, but do not replace, immediate involvement in real settings.
High performance computing and communications won't be a "silver bullet" that magically solves all problems of education; thoughtful and caring participation is vital for making these new capabilities truly valuable. Even then, at times a sloppy, handwritten note delivered through surface mail will mean more to the recipient than an instantly transmitted, elegantly formatted electronic message. New media complement existing approaches to widen our repertoire of communication; properly designed, they need not eliminate choices or force us into high tech, low touch situations.
How a medium shapes its users, as well as its message, is a central issue in understanding the transformation of distance education into distributed learning. The telephone creates conversationalists; the book develops imaginers, who can conjure a rich mental image from sparse symbols on a printed page. Much of television programming induces passive observers; other shows, such as Sesame Street and public affairs programs, can spark users' enthusiasm and enrich their perspectives. As we move beyond naive "superhighway" concepts to see the true potential impact of information infrastructures, society will face powerful new interactive media capable of great good or ill. Today's "couch potatoes," vicariously living in the fantasy world of television, could become tomorrow's "couch funguses," immersed as protagonists in 3-D soap operas while the real world deteriorates. The most significant influence on the evolution of distance education will not be the technical development of more powerful devices, but the professional development of wise designers, educators, and learners.
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